October 13 / 8:22 a.m.
Plainview, New York
So I’m hanging out this morning—by myself, as always—and just outside my Jacuzzi, I hear some anxious, muffled voices. I’ve been hearing these voices for what seems like months now. More often than not, they’re loud and somewhat disturbing. One voice is always louder than theother for some reason. I can feel a distinct vibration surrounding me when I hear that one. The other voice sounds more distant, perhaps an octave lower. I’m still really wrestling with what an octave is. For some reason, I feel like I’ve heard that word before.
I find the voices to be unsettling. Frightening even. The vibrating one is particularly unnerving. Yet, in a strange way, they’re a nice distraction.
This morning, however, the voices sound different. Particularly the one associated with the vibration. I’ve only heard this kind of intense, guttural sound once before—and it came from me. Eight weeks into the “gestation period,” I woke up to find I no longer had a tail. Most people don’t even know humans begin with one. God, how I loved that tail. I feel great stress, actual physical pain, and fear at what I might lose next. My trusty umbilical cord?
Screaming notwithstanding, at least it’s still physically comfortable in here—safe and sound in my trusty Jacuzzi, as I like to call it. It’s been rough sledding on more than one occasion these past eight months and twenty-one days. I’ve been scratching out each day on the side of the Jacuzzi like you see in those prison movies.
There are some rumblings below me just before the screaming starts. Then a big one hits. Tragically, it appears my Jacuzzi has suffered serious damage from what I can only describe as an earthquake, as water begins draining rapidly. I would later learn this was called “fluid.”
Amniotic or some such thing.
I immediately thought this was the big one we’d always heard about. The one where California peels off the map and the majority of the country is relieved. But no, this was barely a tune-up for what was to come.
En route to Syosset Hospital, Syosset, NY
There’s been a great deal of commotion inside what used to be my warm, comfortable living space. Aftershocks have been going on for at least two hours now. Waves of fluid toss me around like a rag doll. I feel like I’m on Gilligan's charter boat during that fateful three-hour cruise. Which, by the way, never made total sense to me. Really, how far could they have gotten in three hours?
Now the activity is picking up. Larger waves of fluid crash against me. There’s more screaming, then a couple of slamming noises followed by a loud screeching sound, and the sensation of great speed as I slam to the back of my living quarters. I remain pinned there for about ten minutes, interrupted by an occasional skidding noise, at which point I’m thrown left or right—there’s no pattern, no way to anticipate which way I’ll be thrown next. I hear one final screeching sound as I'm flung forward, no longer enough fluid to cushion the blow as I crash head-first into my now destroyed jacuzzi.
There are all kinds of panicky, muffled voices outside, drowned out now and then by screams growing in both volume and frequency. I begin to experience the sensation of slower, smoother forward motion than before, accompanied by the sound of a small, squeaky wheel whose ball bearings gave out before they were put into service. And an annoying, rattling sound to go with it like you hear from that large grocery store pushcart you always seem to pick out of a lineup of several hundred.
Syosset Hospital Delivery Room
After what seems like a week of massive shockwaves, there rings out a new, more terrifying, piercing scream. I can see the shadow of a huge lance (“epidural”) heading towards what remains of my living space after missing a long, vertical structure. A “spine.” Strange word. Thankfully, it stops just short of me, disappearing as quickly as it appeared. The aftershocks persist for some time and then, inexplicably, stop. It’s finally over. I’m safe—but without adequate shelter. Or so I thought.
Then it happens. The walls start closing in on me. There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Pressure. Oh my god, the pressure—from all around. The screams pick up again, but now they’re joined by mine, although I seem to have something stuck in my throat. It’s like trying to scream during a terrifying nightmare, yet nothing comes out. You know that feeling.
Something’s wrong. Something bad is out there, whatever there is—but it’s most certainly not coming from in here. There wasn’t a good vibe on the other side, and I have a feeling I’m soon going to find out what it is.
Syosset Hospital Delivery Room
Anyway, back to this fateful morning in Syosset, Long Island, in a hospital known only for its big, blue windows that don’t open. It’s becoming clear that this particular door I’m facing is being forced open without my consent, and I’m about to join a god-awful party in a room void of anything except for that incessant screaming.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, which has been growing exponentially these past almost nine months, I sensed something like this would happen. Something never quite felt right. So I had a contingency plan in case things went sideways. That cord. That beautiful, translucent cord that has hung by me—and from me—up until now. That’s my ticket out of this shit-show.
It’s becoming pretty clear my home for the past almost nine months isn’t going to hold. The outer walls have been breached. My beloved Jacuzzi is damaged beyond repair. I know in my bones, which I now notice are incredibly pliable, that I’m heading into a place that’s incompatible— even inhospitable—to someone like me. Is the air breathable? I figure there’s a fifty-fifty chance. Food, potable water, shelter? Unknown. But somehow these creatures, with no cords attached to them, that I can now see through a small, vertical opening—they’ve survived. Except, they look like the walking dead to me. Another very bad sign.
At this point, I’m less concerned with the physical habitat than the energy I sense out there. I know, instinctively, that I’m descending into a shit storm—and this is from someone who has only ejected waste through a cord. The cord that will now save me from a life of pain and misery. The irony.
Piecing this story back together now reminds me of when I was mentally preparing for my first trip on homegrown psilocybin mushrooms. I was listening to the godfather of psychedelics on cassette tape, Terrance McKenna, describing a somewhat similar shit storm of his own. He felt he was in the middle of a desert, the horizon perfectly flat on all sides, with a sandstorm fifty miles wide and two miles tall heading towards him at a terrible speed.
There was simply no way out for him. That’s how this all feels to me, although I would say, based on my situation and his ability to read a room, he would have used “tidal wave” instead of sandstorm in his telling. In his high-pitched elf-like voice:
“A raging, dark ocean storm in the frigid Atlantic—exactly midway between North America and the hard, rocky coast of England. Just
enough daylight that you could see it was mean, and angry, with
waves as tall as skyscrapers.”
Well, they aren’t going to take me alive—even at birth.
So I wrap my trusty umbilical cord around my neck, look out at all those sad faces, and scream, “FUCK IT—FUCK THE LOT OF YOU!” And with a big smile plastered on my tiny, wet, compressed face that no one recognizes, I jump. “YOU WON'T TAKE ME ALIVE,
Needless to say, things did not go as planned.
Someone grabs me headfirst with what I can only describe as vise-grips. I try fighting them off, but simply don’t have the arm strength. The one in a white lab coat cuts my noose, unwrapping it from around my neck. Then, the son-of-a-bitch grabs me by the ankles, flips me upside down, and slaps my bare-ass, making a sharp cracking sound, like a whip trying to tame a wild lion in an empty tent. What the fuck?!! I knew it was going to be bad, but this?
I start swinging my arms wildly, thinking I might connect with something—anything. I soon realize I have absolutely no control of my limbs, of which I can now make out three, possibly four. It probably would have felt like being slapped by a wet noodle, regardless.
I’m defenseless. I know it. Everyone in that intensely blue room knows it.
I'm embarrassed to say I start crying like a baby. Who wouldn't? I know this is just one in a lifetime of public humiliations coming my way.
I’m roughly grabbed by my midsection, turned back upright, and this asshole proceeds to jam what feels like his whole fist down my throat. Honest to god! This is so much worse than my worst nightmare. Now on my back, looking up at a ceiling of white, fibrous tiles that I almost wish had been made of solid asbestos, I’m dropped into the arms of a creature that’s staring with vapid eyes into mine, maybe six inches away.
God, is this the way things work here? This thing’s really invading my personal space. Strangely, I begin to feel some sort of uneasy connection to this creature, even though I don’t recognize it from the outside.
I’m momentarily distracted by the site of another creature carrying a bowl, reflecting the blue of those hospital windows. My cord’s in it. My cord! It’s all I had, and now it’s gone. Just like my tail.
I turn back toward this creature I’m sure I know somehow. We look into each other's eyes. We just keep looking for I don’t know how long. Instinctively, I know that from this moment on, this creature will love me. And never let me go. I’m sure in her own way, she senses that, too. And it’s at that precise moment that I know I am completely, and irrevocably, fucked. And everyone at that god-awful party knows it, too.
Another creature slides up to my side and also starts to invade my personal space. He begins making unintelligible sounds, and I immediately recognize it as the deeper voice I’d been hearing these last months. He’s a good-looking guy, but reeks of cigarettes. They say those who experience constant second-hand smoke have an increased risk of death from cancer by 20 to 30 percent—a full 7,300 lung cancer deaths a year. I have to assume he’s not aware of. First-hand smoke, I would later learn, is exponentially more dangerous. It would be his undoing at a fairly young age. Fortunately, he would be out of my life early enough that I would not succumb to it also. Fun fact: the largest client in his advertising business is Philip Morris Tobacco. The largest producer of death sticks.
Before long, I’m picked up by the one who had carried off my cord, and actually feel a glimmer of hope that I’ll see it again, and maybe even my long-lost tail that might have spilled out with all of that fluid. I’m brought into a large room that’s much more quiet, peaceful, and less bright. The blue now has a calming effect. I hear scattered sounds similar to the ones I made after that asshole slapped me. Theirs are not quite as loud and angry. I’m concerned I might already have anger issues.
I’m carefully laid down into what looks like a clear, plastic tub. My head starts rolling left to right, I’m not sure how, and I can begin to make out small creatures that have similar appendages to mine—there are four of them. I have toassume that’s what I look like, too. They’re sporting small, unfashionable hats that partially obscure their shriveled, prune-like faces. Half have fallen off, and you can see most have receding hairlines. Not enough to swirl a decent comb over. Alopecia, I guess. So young in life. They must have bad genes. Propecia is said to be 65 percent effective. I don’t know if they prescribe that at such a young age, but it could really help build their self-esteem.
I keep looking around at all of these small creatures and begin to wonder, “Are they all fucked, too?” I’ve had an issue swearing even at a young age. It’s one of the few sounds that I heard loud and clear in my wet and warm living space—a space I now miss dearly.
I can just make out a large window in the distance. It isn’t blue, but it also doesn’t open. I feel somewhat reassured by that. Again, large creatures, but these seem, at first glance, to be nice enough. However, as my eyes focus, I begin to make out that they’re peering down on my new mates and me. They appear to be pointing and laughing at us. It’s hard for me to say whether they have sinister intent or not.
Some of their faces remind me of ones I will later encounter while working at Baskin-Robbins as they look down with wonder and a smile, trying to decide which tub out of thirty-one to choose from while clutching a ticket ripped from a sticky red receptacle. I’m wondering which one motioning behind the glass will take me—we’ve clearly been prepped for this. Why else would they have wiped us down, wrapped up in these togas, and topped off with these ridiculous skull caps?
I have to say, I’m excited to be living in what appears to be Ancient Greece or Rome. I can’t wait to take in a Gladiator fight at the Colosseum. You couldn’t reserve seats back then, but you had a pretty good view from anywhere in the house. And if you had a good arm, you could still reach the field with a cabbage. I’m really looking forward to that!
No offense to the two I met earlier in the delivery room, but there are a few others behind that glass I’m rooting for. I’m exhausted and decide to get some shuteye. Why not just go with the flow for a while? It’s not like I have any choice in the outcome...
Syosset Hospital, Nursery
Right in the middle of a vivid nightmare, I’m startled awake, picked up, and deliberately and slowly walked out to a long, bright hallway. It’s completely abandoned, except for a creature sitting motionless by itself in a chair with wheels. It appears to be a good half of a football field in the distance—its shadow somehow stretching all the way to us. With each footstep taken towards it, I feel a sense of foreboding. As we get closer, an unsettling feeling comes over me. There’s a chill in the air. I’m dropped into its arms. It looks down at me with a catatonic stare, and I realize my number’s up.
With no doggy-bag containing either my cord or tail, we begin to glide down that long, antiseptic hall, wheels squeaking all the way. The one who smells of burnt tobacco and was present for my first physical abuse back in the delivery room, is walking hand-in-hand with a small creature that can move under its own power. It’s bigger than my mates, but doesn’t seem threatening at this time.
I have some connection to the smaller creature. I can feel that. It has a look on its face as though it’s experienced the same trauma I just came through. I can’t tell if it feels compassion or glee. I wonder if it still thinks about that Jacuzzi. Does it even still remember? How long will I?
The very last thing I remember before once again sliding into these uncontrollable naps is that small creature asking the one with the darting eyes, “What’s that?”
“Why, that’s your new baby brother,” it says as its voice trails off.
It replies with exasperation and a hint of anger, “I don’t want one of those.”
I sense what it said. And I think, What a dick!
But then, how mad can I get? I realize, like me, it’s fucked, too. TWO
Adjectives and Nouns
It isn’t just because of my dyslexia. There’s more to my hostility towards verbs and nouns and adverbs and prepositions and suppositions and transitions. The words and grammar and spelling and vocabulary—the whole language thing. There is all that. They’d all be tolerable if it weren't for adjectives. I hold a very special place in my heart for those adjectives.
It’s like one big foreign language to me. But really it would’ve applied to any language. This is not specific to English, my mother tongue. I would say this would apply even to a dead language such as Latin, or Aramaic.
“Selfish” — “Bastard” Adjective — Noun
I believe it was my particular indoctrination into language that drew me towards the mystery, wonder, and power of the adjective. They’re the words that make or break their respective sentences. Wielded in the right hands, these particular words can be weaponized. They can effortlessly slice through the very paper they’re written on. They can force you to cover your eyes as if you had just looked at a solar eclipse, but without that piece of white paper with the hole in it—the one they taught you how to use in first grade, which never seemed to work for me.
Words are merely vibrations assembled in a pattern that you come to recognize over time. Vibrations can be further broken down to their essence, which is energy. Pure energy. It’s what the universe is made of. I’ve come to believe that it is in the delivery of these patterns, rather than the literal definition of the patterns, that holds the most power. It’s all about the delivery. The energy that emanates from within and around these sounds.
Anybody can create a pattern. The art is in infusing that pattern with the appropriate energy to match the occasion. That's what gives it its real meaning–its real power. My mother was exceptionally skilled in this form. And that energy was flying all around me. It was everywhere and seemingly nowhere in particular, launched into the room I always seemed to find myself in, regardless of what danger those vibrations posed to someone of my size and stature.
“Selfish” — “Bastard” Adjective — Noun
Of course, these were patterns I was too young to recognize. But at a pretty early age, out of necessity I’m sure, I was beginning to understand these were not just random sounds. I must have been trying for some time to figure out the relevance of these patterns, even though some patterns are better left alone. But there they were. And I couldn’t just crawl around them forever.
I learned to walk at a rather early age. I might’ve gone straight from crawling to running. It’s hard to say, but it wouldn’t surprise me. It was clear to everyone at the playground that none of the other toddlers had that quick first step I possessed—that burst of speed I could generate from a standing stop. Most couldn’t figure out the purpose of the uncontrollable screams that came out of my mouth when I took off on a sprint. The screams didn’t bother me.
My crash course in adjectives and nouns would be interrupted when I was five or six when my mother had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized for a few month. I’m not sure if it was called a hospital or “sanitarium” back then. I wouldn’t have understood that word, anyway—noun, verb, adjective, what did it matter. When I was older and the kids all screamed out of the school bus windows–pointing at the crazy people in that same sanitarium as we drove by–I’d join in, too. No one was the wiser.
I’d spend those months in Brooklyn with my grandmother and Uncle Eddie, or “Unc.” No argument from me. The food was to die for— Lucky Charms by day, Armenian Kufta, Lahmajoun, and stuffed grape leaves wrapped tight with string cheese, by night.
I’d spend many a day riding around in Unc's glorious Cadillac. It was green, with a faded vinyl top and green interior, and reeked of moderately priced cigars and less expeensive cologne. It cruised over the cracked pavement as if on a bed of air, floating ever so slightly left and then right as he held that huge steering wheel perfectly still. I loved sliding from side to side on that slick, green leather seat in the back.
We’d spend the day covering half the borough, stopping now and again in front of long, narrow, shaded allies, lined with droning air conditioners dripping condensed water that always smelled stale, even though it had just been created out of thin air. His trunk would pop open with the push of a hidden button, and he’d pull out assorted goods that would be bartered for other assorted goods, or exchanged for cash peeled out of money clips barely able to contain a thick wad of bills. A lone $100 hid mostly $5s and $10s. Apparently, much of the merchandise in these mysterious exchanges had fallen off the back of an eighteen-wheeler as it left Kennedy Airport, and no one stopped to claim it. To this day, I’ve never met anyone so lucky as Unc.
We’d enter back-alley rooms through faded, brown metal doors that would always stick a little when you tried to pull them open in the sweat of a hot Brooklyn summer. I wasn’t strong enough to open one on my own, and Unc’s hands were always full of the merchandise.
“Hey, Big Tony, It’s Eddie,” Unc would shout so the whole block could hear.
I love that Unc's friends all seemed to have those colorful names. I wish I had one of those names, but I wasn’t Italian and I think that was a requirement back then. The door would open with a pop and a big, heavy-set guy in a tight, sleeveless T-shirt unable to contain tufts of black hair would open it up.
“Hey, Eddie!” Big Tony would bellow as he took his big paw, placed it on top of my small head, and shook it a little too hard. I always loved that.
I never said anything when the transactions were going down, but I took it all in. Every minute detail. Big Tony’s money clip was the envy of the Burrows. The crew was mostly Italians with large necks and pinky rings that were put on years ago, their skin now enveloping most of it but for the tiger's eye staring out. You’d need the jaws of life to get that back off. Sometimes, when Unc wanted a good laugh, he’d rap me on the back of my head with his ring. I didn’t think it was all that funny, and we both knew he wasn’t Italian.
For a while, Unc owned a “supper club,” which was a private club where wiseguys went to play pinochle, smoke cigars, have a drink or two, and tell the same stories over and over while everyone played along. At three-and-a-half feet tall, it was always exciting to walk around that huge card table and look up at those three huge orbs of warm light penetrating a cloud of smoke that never seemed to move.
Supper clubs have to be dark, but not so dark you can’t see the gun holsters just below a wiseguy’s right calf, as their polyester pants ride up their fat, hairy legs when they sit down. They made no attempt to hide them. I loved that, too. I felt more in my element there, even though I was growing up in prim and proper New York suburb of Westport, Connecticut. I never really saw them as criminals—or, better yet, gangsters. They were great, colorful guys who were full of life and had very clear rules. If you challenged those rules, they weren’t great guys. It was all pretty straightforward if you asked me.
I credit them, in large part, for my becoming a wiseguy myself. Kids in Westport didn’t understand the kind of energy, perspective, and color they can infect you with when you’re around them long enough. I really liked that energy, especially growing up in an uptight town. It gave me the confidence to be a wise-ass to kids that you shouldn’t necessarily be a wise-ass to. I always felt if the shit hit the fan, I could call my Unc and his big green Cadillac would show up bursting with wiseguys wearing guns around their ankles. I really did feel like I had that ace up my sleeve. My guess is if I ever asked Unc, he’d show up with at least one. And in Westport, that was all you needed.
Back to my mother. Apparently, something tragic happened that precipitated her temporary relocation to the sanitarium. I believe it was in part attributable to the not-so-amicable separation of my parents. On one occasion, when they were sorting things out, it was so in amicable that I thought my father was going to kill her. I watched the whole thing, peeking around the corner of a wall at the top of the stairs overlooking our living room. It was night, and mostly dark up there, so they couldn’t see me.
I’d never heard screams like that up to this point in my life. When it was over, and she saw that I’d been watching, she ran up the stairs and grabbed me while sobbing uncontrollably. I wasn’t crying at all. I told her I thought he was going to kill her. Tears streaming down her face, she said she thought he was going to kill her, too, which is a reassuring thing to hear as a five-year-old. I saw my father much less frequently after that. At least the odds of a double-homicide plunged.
I believe the other part that played a role in sending her to the sanitarium had to do with some pretty unspeakable things that happened to me that she knew about. I was too young to fully understand it, but sentient enough to know it was very bad. It was very wrong. Criminal, even. It’s the kind of thing that’s capable of transforming your world of chaos into an absolute hell—the real-deal hell you hear about. The one with the capital H. I’m talking a hellish Hell. And I found that out very early on.
Hellish — Hell
Adjective — Noun
When sexual abuse is happening, there’s a detachment from the actual act. A detachment in general, I’d say. At least for a large percentage of victims, I’m told. That was certainly the case for me, and that’s all I have to go by. I wasn’t old enough to comprehend what the act was, of course. I had no way to process it. And I had no one I trusted enough at that age I could turn to. Hell, I had no one, period. Especially not my mother.
It’s all just a blur at that age—a bad dream that you don’t wake up from so easily. We all dream. Even five-year-olds dream. Maybe up to that point, five-year-olds dream more than most. My dreams became even more disturbing after that abuse. It had fully infected my body, mind, and soul. It isn’t hard looking back on that now and seeing all things truly do lead to Rome—right after the fall, in my case. There’s no antibiotic to kill that kind of darkness. No exorcist to exhume it. Nowhere to run, and nowhere to hide. That energy will follow you into every room you enter. Especially with those adjectives and nouns flying around. And so, I detached. Just like that—poof—a big part of me just disappeared.
This wasn’t an ideal state to launch my academic career. I didn’t speak a word through the majority of kindergarten. I was physically in the classroom, but I wasn’t really there. The teachers didn’t know what was wrong with me. I don’t know if they asked my mother if she had a clue. But who’s going to admit to that kind of crime?
Maybe she didn’t have a clue herself.
The teachers figured having me repeat kindergarten would solve everything. I must’ve gotten wind of this because I started showing I had the ability to communicate with other sentient beings with just a month left in the school year. I’m not sure how or why, but it’s quite likely my primary motivation was to get the hell out of that bright red trailer home of a structure that resembled a one-lane bowling alley from the inside. I was done waking up sprawled out on the floor every day covered in graham cracker crumbs surrounded by empty milk cartons.
Things did shift some with my mother when she returned from the sanitarium. Perhaps because she was now on a fairly high dose of antipsychotics that were bulging out of our kitchen cabinet. When we resumed my vocabulary lessons, she didn’t scream random, incoherent sounds. She was using more clearly defined patterns that became easier to recognize. She wanted to communicate, to connect with me somehow. I figure she learned that during her behavioral therapy sessions at the sanitarium—the one after her arts-and-crafts class. She made me a blueish-green, corduroy stuffed elephant while she was there that I kept on my bed for years because I felt sorry for her. I hated that elephant.
“YOU SELFISH BASTARD!”
My mother would say this, even though she must’ve been aware that I still didn’t understand what those words actually meant, even with my advanced tutoring. She must’ve had her reasons. Or at least a strategy. But in time, I began to learn how to conjugate verbs, adjectives, and nouns. I learned that at Hillspoint Elementary School. It was a large building shaped like a beached whale, designed by someone who must’ve been playing a practical joke on the town zoning board.
“Selfish” — “Bastard” Adjective — Noun
In time, I learned it is the adjective that usually, though not exclusively, precedes the noun. The laws of grammar don’t have this as a hard-and-fast rule, and Hillspoint wasn’t trying to ruffle any feathers in the world of academia. However, looking at the setup above, I see it makes sense. Let’s take those words and just play with them a little. Let’s see which combination wields the most power in a simple, standalone sentence:
“You selfish bastard!” Adjective—Noun
“You bastard. You’re selfish.” Noun—Adjective
For my money, pattern number one is the more powerful of the two. You’ll notice I placed an exclamation point at the end. I really had no choice but to put it there. How can you write those words without punctuating the end like that? You’re a selfish bastard and that’s that. No equivocating. There’s a finality to it.
Number two, on the other hand, doesn’t pack the same punch. They’re the same words, but with a different feel. In this pattern, the words are delivered in what might be construed as “constructive” as opposed to accusatory and demeaning. Yes, you are a bastard. That’s stated clearly. And, yes, you’re selfish. There’s no doubt about that. But is it being offered more as an observation? A way of enlightening the receiver as to his or her predicament, while allowing for a course correction?
Anyway, the builders who put up our planned neighborhood in the sixties forgot to put insulation in the homes. Single glass panes and no caulking all made for nice breezes during the Nor’easters. Adjectives and nouns escaping the house was a problem, though. I think the neighbors began to understand why I was always terrorizing the Good Humor man, blowing up their mailboxes, and why there was a rapidly dwindling frog population. They probably also had an inkling as to why I was always walking around with a dazed, wide-eyed look—like that young Vietnamese girl they always seem to show in black-and-white footage, running naked down a street away from what was likely a napalm bomb. Such a nice-sounding word—napalm—for something so tragically evil.
I was fortunate to have been fully clothed, although for some reason I still have dreams that I’m naked in public, and suspect there’s a connection.
“You selfish bastard!” Adjective—Noun
“You bastard. You’re selfish.”Noun—Adjective
I will say that my mother, as an Ivy League graduate, appreciated the value of a good education. It stands to reason, she attempted to provide me with a leg up on the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing portion of the SATs, particularly the subsections: Words in Context and Expression of Ideas. I appreciated her foresight. And she attacked it with gusto.
Junior high and high school were much the same. There’s no need to go into too much detail, though I will say I’d already started drinking hard by my junior year in high school. I didn’t do drugs of any kind, but I made up for it in beer. Michelob, when I could afford it because of the cool, gold foil they wrapped on top like it was a champagne bottle. It always felt like a celebration. “Brewed for Those Who Go the Extra Mile” was their slogan. No doubt about that. It made driving those extra miles much more of an adventure in my bright-red Triumph TR6, with headers and an Ansa racing exhaust that could be heard a good mile before I arrived. That sound was a joy to my ears, and would reverberate off the buildings in the arts quad at Cornell as I drove through every morning with my top down, even at thirty degrees. I’m ashamed to report that I got my very first DWI my very first night driving that TR6 on campus—about a hundred yards from Balch Hall, which was the dormitory my mother had lived in during her freshman year. Go figure.
I have to believe that the admissions office at Cornell favored students who had a lot of experience drinking, as there was almost nothing to do in Ithaca at the time, and the university had the highest suicide rate in the country. The weather didn’t help, to be sure. It wasn’t a question on the application, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they did a background check before sending out those acceptance letters. It also helped that I was a “Double Legacy.” I still love referring to myself in that term—which only means both parents graduated from the same school.
There was always a sad handwritten letter from my mother not far behind once I headed back to school. It would arrive a week later apologizing, over two full pages of nicely written light-blue script for how she treated me while I was home. She promised it wouldn’t happen when I came back on break next time, and she was always good to her word for forty-eight hours. It’s like a bell rang a minute past 48. Each time back, I’d notice she had upped her game—word choice, frequency, intensity.
“You selfish bastard, I hate you.”
“You fucking, selfish bastard. I hate you.”
On occasion, after all the pleasantries had been exchanged, they were followed by a threat: “I’m going to call the police on you.” Now, this would make for an interesting crime scene; an oversized group of overeager cops who rarely saw action, barreling into the slums of Westport, guns drawn, yellow tape furiously strung between mailboxes to keep the neighbors and news crews at a safe distance. That one cop who scrambles to grab the new bullhorn which invariably shrieks when he turns it on, so everyone in the crowd knows he’s never used one and is the last guy you want to try and defuse what has the potential to be an explosive situation.
I had simply walked into the house after a hard night drinking at Viva Zapata's—our favorite watering hole. “God is good,” as they say, when your girlfriend is a bartender. I simply looked forward to warming up a couple of frozen French-bread pizzas in our overused toaster oven, screwed flush to the bottom of those sticky yellow cabinets closest to the refrigerator. This ritual most often ended with me retiring to the family room downstairs and turning on the TV while waiting for that tinny-sounding bell to ring. And after almost electrocuting myself while jamming a Philips Head screwdriver into our newfangled cable TV box, thinking I could somehow tune in a clear signal on the Playboy channel, I’d pass out. It’s amazing how the mind works when it’s drunk on Cuervo Gold.
I’d wake up in the morning to two small pieces of charcoal in a toaster oven that didn’t have the heart to smoke them anymore, and cabinets that had no idea how they hadn’t burst into flames hours ago.
“Son, put the frozen French-bread pizza down, and stand away from the toaster oven! No one needs to get hurt here.”
Had someone ratted me out? Was I really going to go down for what was so trivial compared to some of my other escapades?
I knew the best way to defuse the situation with my mother when she did this was to grab the phone first, dial 911, and hand her the receiver. Call her bluff. Ever notice how difficult 911 is to dial on those rotary phones? Even more so when it’s moving in no discernible pattern across a wall covered in dark-brown cork board with random, multicolored pins holding up strips of paper with notes and dates from a distant past. I still have nightmares about those phones. Your pointer finger invariably slipping out of that clear, slick plastic dial when you’re on the second to last number.
Turning to find her blocking me on the stairs, her hands firmly pushing on both sides of the wall, microscopic pupils darting left to right at an intense speed that defies the laws of human biology. Her searing, psychotic anger burning the backside of my eye sockets—now threatening my pineal gland, the “seat of the soul.” That’ll leave a mark.
I knew, even then, this was not all about me. Maybe a third, but not all. It’s possible I woke her when I stumbled over the tall, worn, gold shag carpet with that tinge of cat urine, while heading into the kitchen. But she never ate French-bread pizzas, and those were the only two sources of potential conflict I could think of.
“You selfish bastard. I hate you.”
Selfish—adjective / Bastard—noun or adjective /
Hate—verb or noun
“You selfish bastard. I hate your fucking guts.”
Selfish—adjective / Bastard—noun or adjective
Hate—verb or noun / Fucking—adjective /
Number four became her go-to dagger. It was years in the making, and you have to respect the single-minded focus she brought to her craft.
Honestly, looking back on it, I already sensed what those words—those sounds—the patterns—that energy— meant when bits and pieces of them first started flying around that cold house with no insulation. By the time you understand adjectives and know how to conjugate a verb, they’re already a part of who you are and how you see yourself.
“They're just projecting their own shit,” the therapist will tell you for $200 an hour.
“Cold comfort,” I say. “Too late.”
I was already hard-wired. Samskaras, as the Hindus call them—grooves that are difficult to resist. And those kinds of grooves can fuck with you for a lifetime. Many lifetimes, if you believe in that kind of thing, which, as luck would have it, I do.THREE
It’s a Wonderful Life
Truth be told, I was learning more than just adjectives and nouns once I hit Hillspoint Elementary. I was a pretty mistrusting youngster by that time, as you probably understand. Aside from the obvious dangers posed by those adjectives and nouns flying around at home, it was the subtle inconsistencies I began to see in the world at large that concerned me. If something didn’t make sense to me, that could be a danger, and I was always on high alert for danger. But it really hit me when I wrote my first serious book report in the sixth grade. I think I took on the subject because I saw the hypocrisy of my own state— Connecticut—and how it was being pushed as the “Nutmeg State” and the “Constitution State,” which even at a young age seemed strange to me. A little unnerving.
How could something as important as the tagline of an entire state—what you put on your postcards and license plates–be a reason for someone to notice you out of a crowd of fifty and drive to your state in a station wagon with fake wood on the side. How could you have two? It was confusing to me. It's no way to build a brand. It's bait-and-switch of the worst kind. That would be confusing to any sixth grader, and it’s why I tackled such a hot-button subject in my paper.
There very well may be some logical reason for why nutmeg factors into Connecticut’s sense of self. But “Constitution State?” What does that even mean? It’s presumptuous. The Constitution wasn’t written in Connecticut. John Hancock never sat at a long oak table littered with quill pens anywhere in Connecticut. That's a fact. This wasn’t a slight to Connecticut. In truth, the colonies could use all the colonies they could get at the time.
As far as I could tell, Nutmeg appeared to have something to do with Christmas due to its relationship with eggnog. Looking back on it now, you have to tip your cap to whoever in Connecticut made that tie-in due to the lucrative nature of the holiday season—a subliminal seduction type strategy. That clever branding might have originated in one of those sleek advertising agencies in New York City—whose many sleek agents commuted to and from Westport, in which case I shouldn’t have been surprised. Of course, I can’t prove it. These agents, if they existed, covered their tracks meticulously. Coincidentally, my father was one of those sleek agents until he headed out of the country for good. Maybe they’d figured him out. Maybe he really was involved with the whole eggnog conspiracy. The jig was up. He certainly left in a hurry.
Regardless of any outside influences, I loved Christmas as a child. I assumed we all loved Christmas, unless of course you were Jewish, in which case it would be a somewhat uncomfortable time of the year, what with the circumstances surrounding the death of Jesus. Not judging of course. They just wanted to ring in the cheer like the next guy which I imagine was hard enough to do while slogging their way through 12 days of an overmatched holiday featuring a very short playlist of songs all in the same.
But for those of us who were safely observing this holiday, I imagined that we all celebrated it in our own way— individually—by ourselves—completely alone in some sense. I believe Christmas gave us an excuse back then to be who we truly are when no one else was in the room because usually, no one else was.
I actually preferred it that way. One Christmas, we visited someone who was quite possibly a friend of my mothers. This might’ve been a temporary arrangement for purposes unknown to me. The unpleasant experience did nothing but wreck my momentum heading into the homestretch of the season. Their home appeared to be made of a dark, grayish-brown substance. It must’ve been very old as it was built dangerously close to the road, like when transportation was horse and buggy and nobody minded the noise even if the manure was an occasional problem. The car door almost hit the house when it was opened.
My mother pressed hard on one of those small push button doorbells that desperately needed some WD-40. It got stuck in the down position and could only manage the first of what was clearly intended to be two notes—the first just left hanging there. The door opened a full twenty-five seconds later, and I was pushed in as if cannon fodder. A huddled group of anonymous people were sitting inside, backs facing away, transfixed on a TV. Fourteen fully dilated pupils are locked on a screen featuring a fireplace that’s been playing on a loop for hours—possibly days. Maybe they’re hoping that TV, positioned next to an unlit fireplace, will throw some heat into their cold, uninviting space that appears sepia in tone. Generic Christmas music is straining on a single, tone-deaf speaker positioned on the right side of the TV, just below the dial—not centered, mind you. God forbid there’d be speakers on both sides pretending to be stereo when, in fact, the best you could have hoped for was mono on both left and right. We could at least have pretended.
Those fourteen eyeballs were too mesmerized by the burning embers to acknowledge someone had entered their home on this most festive of days. No cheer—no smell of a turkey or pumpkin pie—no presents anywhere. God forbid anyone spoke while the fire was raging on that brown, plastic Zenith in the corner of the room, which wasn’t even positioned at a fourty-degree angle. How hard would that have been?
My personal Christmas, on the other hand, was more opera than event. My Christmas began on the 24th of November which, when I was a kid was early, but by today's standards is late. September is late now. My Christmas kicked off on 77th and Central Park West at 9 a.m.—the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It was the annual pilgrimage that I begged my mother to take me on every year, even though it was clearly understood she didn’t want to be there. My brother and sister weren’t there, but they weren’t overtly hostile toward the holiday as far as I could tell.
So it was just me and her, and I still appreciate her for
at least getting me there. Truth be told, I felt bad for her. She was missing out on the pure joy of the event. She couldn’t see what was right in front of her face. Or perhaps she didn’t want to. Really, there was no difference in the end. And there was nothing I could do about it, even though I tried very hard for a time. Looking back now, I realize it was always going to be futile.
The parade always played out the same—a blur of more than 1,500 dancers and cheerleaders, 1,000 clowns, thirty parade floats, a dozen marching bands, with nearly 8,000 participants in all. I’d sit patiently, respectfully even, as all of this passed me by. In reality, the last float was the only one that really mattered to me because that was the one carrying the magic man: Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas! When I saw him on top of that huge red sleigh, gliding by in the frigid air of the city, the whole world suddenly made sense. It was pure joy.
The city also played host to that tremendous, stupendous, massive tree that would soon be lit at Rockefeller Center—well, that was special, too. Alas, it was a bridge too far to expect my mother to take me to the celebration. But I had my TV as a fallback. We had seven channels and no clickers back then. It was a simpler time. Maybe we were better off.
The tree lighting was broadcast on one of those seven channels we could spin to back in the day. There was no need to constantly get up and down looking for the one that wasn’t on commercial break. The downside was there was no way to avoid people like Mikey’s older brother, who was forever shocked when little Mikey ate his Life Cereal and liked it. I never understood how his brother could get so worked up, except for the fact that he might’ve eaten too many of those Life squares himself, high on all the sugar they were loaded with (even though most of us had the impression they were healthy).
I only had eyes for Lucky Charms, with their glorious multi-shaped, multicolored marshmallows. Truth be told, those marshmallows all tasted the same, but I didn’t care. I never much cared for the Leprechaun though—it seemed like he was a little too high on the stuff, which was likely a lifelong problem for him since he was on the box. And what was with those green, pointed shoes? In fairness to him, it was his livelihood. How could he say no?
I had that TV all to myself, which made it easier to focus all of my attention on that burst of multi-colored lights wrapping an enormous tree, which for some reason was brought in from another state half the time. As if they couldn’t find a tree that big in the entire state of New York, or at least Connecticut, which, with its Nutmeg-Christmas tie-in, would have made more sense. Still, it always looked the part, standing tall in front of that sunken ice rink with pretty girls spinning in circles.
When it came to our Christmas tree, I was the captain
of that ship. And my tree had to be perfect. When I was young, a high school kid hired for the season would cut one down that I’d pick out amidst a sea of hundreds. I always felt rushed and made a few bad calls—some I still regret to this day. The whole process became more stressful over the years as it became harder and harder to find a tree you wouldn’t be embarrassed to bring home. And by then you had to cut them down yourself with a dull saw they lent you. It took an eternity cutting through those crooked trunks—my frostbitten, Raynaud's-Syndrome fingers and toes slowly going numb, later leading to a pain so intense when they thawed it would’ve tested the mettle of even the toughest woodsmen. It became a long afternoon spent navigating a permafrost hell in a nondescript field filled with second-rate, evergreen has-beens, and forsythia bushes that had no idea how they got mixed up in the whole thing and were only waiting out the winter.
But I loved it just the same.
It was during those moments I thought of Charlie Brown going through the same sort of tree issues, albeit to a much cooler soundtrack. Full disclosure: I never really connected with Charlie Brown, even at Christmastime and even with that soundtrack—god bless Vince Guiraldi. Let’s look past his choice of clothing—that ridiculous yellow sweater with a thick, black zigzag line running horizontally around it. And hanging out with Pig-Pen? No wonder he never had a steady girlfriend. Charlie Brown seemed like such a downer during what for me was such a happy time. He always felt just a little too sorry for himself, even considering the whole field goal–kicking thing, which you really think he would have figured out at some point over the years. That’s just laziness.
Still, Christmas was my favorite time of year, although I’d eventually come to prefer Thanksgiving. It was a much less complicated holiday, and I didn’t run the risk of incarceration for stealing Christmas presents—ironically, mostly from Macy’s (Santa’s benefactor). Every Christmas, I think about that. It makes me ashamed, but not enough not to still chuckle a little.
I was hoping I and my partner in crime would’ve been chased just once by one of those Macy’s security guards that's just trying to blend in. The two of us sliding across shiny, white floors to a dead stop behind assorted mannequins wearing color-coordinated scarves. Playing dead like a possum. One of us spotting a clearing and bolting in a cloud of red and green sweaters the other close behind. Then flying through the women's department and grabbing one of those outstretched perfume bottles, offered from a turnstile of pale arms, that always seem to be sprayed into your eyes on purpose. And finally launching that bottle full force at the store Santa because you knew he was an imposter, and deep down, Santa still meant something to you. Luckily, considering the statute of limitations in Connecticut for grand larceny, I’m in the clear—although I do worry about Karma, assuming it hasn’t already taken its pound of flesh on that one.
I can’t explain the spell Christmas had over me, especially having never set foot in a church at that time, or even still, fully understanding the tie-in. But that’s just what it was as far as I was concerned. A spell.
Christmas became my whole universe. And in my universe, everyone was happy and smiled until it was over, even if I was the only person in the room. I’m lucky to have had that, at least. I don’t think Charlie Brown would have ever had the balls to say that. I’m not sure, in the self-depressed universe he created, he actually believed that. That’s his loss. And fuck Snoopy. He was never really a good friend to Charlie Brown—even on Christmas. That’s cold.
Looking back on it now, Christmas was my lifeline to sanity—and it would lead me into a world that, more than anything or anyone, would come to shape who I would become: the world of television. It all started at a very young age with those Christmas specials. I’d watch every one—Bing Crosby, the Jackson 5, Dean Martin, The Osmonds. They jump-started the holiday season for me. Everyone was happy with those specials. They all seemed to like each other. Husbands and wives. Brothers and sisters. Cats and dogs. That was something I’d never seen up until then. Imagine Bing Crosby and David Bowie singing a duet. If Christmas was capable of pulling that off, who wouldn’t sign up?
I’d get lost in a world where I was never alone. I could control who came and went with the simple turn of a dial. They had to have some humor to appear in my box. That was a prerequisite. They had to put a quick smile on my face. I’d sit at the picnic table we had in the TV room and spread out rolls and rolls of wrapping paper. I expertly packaged all the gifts I’d robbed for everyone. Crisp, straight-cut lines with sharp corners, finished off with multicolored ribbons stuck just inside the upper left corner holding in place a small white tag I wrote their names on.
No one in the house had much interest in these shows, but I couldn't care less. No one paid much attention to anyone else in the house, anyway. Once inside that TV box of mine, I couldn’t see or hear anything—no one and no-thing. Except maybe my cat that always enjoyed Christmas, too. It was the only living creature, other than my grandmother, who I fully trusted.
We had five cats altogether. And similar to every other living thing in the house, they didn’t much care for each other. Mine was Fats, and he and I were fast friends. Gray and white and always disheveled, he got into a terrible brawl one night when one of the neighbor’s cats taunted him—for good reason. I had dressed him up that night in my underwear, and he escaped from the house sporting white BVDs, and matching white T-shirt held together with a black karate belt. It was an even fight, up until the moment the neighborhood bully caught Fats’s inner ear with one of his stilettos. Blood was everywhere, and Fats tapped out. The vet, who probably never ran into a feline inner ear wound that severe, thought it would be a good idea to fold the ear inside out and wrap it with white gauze so it would remain firmly in place. Needless to say, that’s the position it would heal in, and he’d look like a pirate for the rest of his life. It actually wasn’t a bad look. He felt it made him look tougher, which, in our neighborhood, couldn’t hurt. Especially when you’re strolling around in your underwear at night.
My life started to change once I began to enter that box more frequently. Countless days, I’d roam in around 9 a.m. and stay until after 10 p.m. I’d become fully sucked in. And it was real to me. I was sitting in the classroom next to Vinnie Babarino while he harassed Mr. Cotter. I was copilot to Major Greg “Pappy” Boyington during his dogfights with the Japanese on Baa Black Sheep. I was in the front row of the theater when Abbot was trying to explain who was on first base to Costello. I’d huddle up with Hogan’s heroes when they were plotting their escape from that porous German prison camp. And, of course, I spent a great deal of time in Jeannie's bottle. That magical box introduced me to a different world and showed me an alternative way to move within it. It showed me how life isn’t all so dark, and crazy, and cold. Who needed parents when I had all of those great friends and mentors?
I learned good parenting from Mike Brady—although it would have been pretty confusing living under the same roof with two of the hottest girls in town that weren’t your blood sister. I learned how to be a wise ass from Hawkeye and Groucho. I discovered how to be suave and debonair from 007, cool from Cool Hand Luke, and funny from the troupes at Monty Python, Saturday Night Live and Second City Television. Some shows were contemporary to me while others were way before my time. As long as they grabbed me and put a smile on my face, though, it didn’t matter.
Over time, I learned how to shape-shift into any one of these characters to entertain and humor the kids at school. And everyone liked me—from the jocks to the stoners to the girls. I became fluent in all of their languages. And it became invaluable when I hit the world of finance, where you needed to quickly determine who was friend or foe.
I feel sorry for those who had to grow up in a world of cold chaos like mine before television. I feel the same those born into the world of social media after me. Left to their own devices in a home devoid of role models, the odds are stacked against you. I feel as though I grew up in TV Land's sweet spot. It was a more innocent time. Shows and commercials weren’t as angry and violent. There weren’t as many choices, either. If you wanted to stay in that box all day, or felt you had to stay in that box all day as I did, you often had to stick with people and stories you weren’t necessarily comfortable with. But those were often the very stories that teach the most when you don't have teachers in your home and your teachers in school had no way to reach you. That was a valuable education which would serve me well in the future. To be sure, we were all being manipulated back then, but at least you had a fair shot.
I still enter that box on occasion. However, I’m more cynical than I used to be. It’s not the same as the one I grew up in. I don’t know who I would’ve become without my box. I honestly don’t know if I would’ve developed the skills or awareness needed to find my wife. I certainly wouldn’t have hung on this long with the adversity we’ve lived through together. Or had kids I knew how to be around and whose company I love to keep. That’s a trick when you grow up with parents who weren’t there, even when they were sometimes in the room.
Funny how the most enjoyable time I’ve had and continue to have with my family is when we’re hanging out in the “nest.” The nest has always been a warm, inviting, and comfortable room in whatever house we’ve lived in. With a big TV in the center. That might sound a little sad to some who don’t understand, but it’s always been just the opposite for us. We don’t just sit with each other. We all lay on our big L-shaped couch, making sure we’re all touching each other somehow. No one is left out. You'll find us leaning over and into each other–giving a back rub, or foot massage. Looking—and I’m sure feeling like those happy monkeys pulling lice from each other while relaxing in the jungle. Watching their very own Nature Channel.
That’s the kind of gift you can’t even wish for on Christmas. It’s the kind present you’ll never swipe from Macy’s.FOUR
Full disclosure: this whole incident started with what I call a “sucker-slap” and not a “sucker-punch.” You probably already know what a sucker-punch is. A sucker-slap is a very different kind of assault—it causes the recipient no physical damage, not even to the face, which is where it landed on me—or, I should say, brushed me. Yet, it is so unusual, so uncommon, so unexpected—unheard of, even—that it’s difficult to conjure up a logical, or reasonably proportionate, response in real-time. What would you do if you were sucker-slapped? Have you ever seen it happen to someone else? Maybe in the movies?
Point is—it was a crowded, noisy party at a house I was renting with a couple of friends when I was 27. I was at the top of a short flight of stairs in the middle of a room where everyone could clearly see what was unfolding. An anonymous hand reached out of one of the bedrooms through a tight crowd and brushed across my face. The loud, aggressive music that nobody knew how to dance to already had people on edge. Mass confusion ensued. No one, myself included, knew how I would, or should, respond. I apparently misread the moment and felt the need to take aggressive countermeasures that may, or may not, have been warranted. I tend to overreact—I was a very angry young man by this time. That was especially true when I drank more than a half a bottle of tequila or ran out of my prescribed mood stabilizer. This night was the perfect storm, as both of those boxes were, regrettably, checked. Everyone knew this was always a danger. An incident like this was almost inevitable. And the scene would play out as one might expect:
Camera 1—(P.O.V.) Center of large, rowdy party with lead at top of a short flight of stairs looking confused after having just been brushed across the face by an open hand. Now staring directly at perpetrators face from one foot away with hands tightly around his neck. No audio.
NARRATOR (V.O. LEAD)
Ever notice the look on someone's face when you’re strangling them? The sheer terror. Eyes bulging, not just because they’re being squeezed out of their sockets. It’s much more than that.
Ever notice the environment? Notice how you can’t hear a sound even though you’re at the center of a party that’s raging all around you? And you’re now the main actor in the scene. No sound from the room. No sound from the face. Complete silence.
Camera 2—Super slow motion / Perspective now up at lead and perpetrator from bottom of stairs two people deep - over top of heads. Still no audio.
NARRATOR (V.O. LEAD) (CONT’D)
Ever notice how this scene is always playing out in slow-motion? Not the old kind of slow-motion we used to see in football games when Monday night meant something. No, this is the super-slow-motion kind that you see now and everywhere—even on your iPhone. It’s one step short of frozen.
That’s how you’ll see this scene from your special vantage point— directly across and in front of that frozen, pale face, moving in a steady, round, clockwise fashion, as if it has no beginning and no end.
Camera 3 / Steadicam rotating around lead and perpetrator at top of stairs. Perpetrator now in distress - gasping for air - trying desperately to pull lead’s hands off of throat. Still no sound.
NARRATOR (V.O. LEAD) (CONT’D)
Now imagine what must be going on in the brain, within the head, above the throat, whose eyes are slowly being squeezed out of their sockets. I’m imagining that lizard brain is screaming, even though no sound is coming out of the wide-open mouth just below it. That face that’s screaming silently in terror because it’s realizing, seventeen seconds into the scene, that it may have already taken its last breath seventeen seconds earlier. Imagine how terrifying that might be?
Quentin Tarantino could not direct a scene any better than what was playing out in that magical moment. Of course, there might’ve been more blood spilled in his take, but sometimes less is more. Flying, splattering blood can be a distraction from what’s most riveting in a scene such as this.
Camera 2—Super slow-motion ramping to real-time. Noise of crowd rising. Scattered screams with some guests now running out the front door in panic.
NARRATOR (V.O. LEAD) (CONT’D)
The simple look of a face filled with terror. The subtle beauty of my fingers that have slowly gone from white to yellow, around his neck that has gone from yellow to white, juxtaposed against the rich, red hue of his face. Light playing with a growing dapple of saliva on the left corner of his lips, now intermingling with the tiniest of bubbles—some now popping—making it all sparkle.
*** END SCENE ***
You simply wouldn’t catch those details if an excess of blood was in the scene. I think we both knew that, and in some way appreciated it. Or maybe only I noticed. It was a special moment just the same.
These types of incidents can escalate quickly, particularly if you’re walking into a room, packed wall to wall, with a crowd of extras lit up on booze. He simply should not have entered that scene—a party he crashed just to stir up trouble. It didn’t turn out well for him. There would be no call back.
For me, on the other hand, our encounter was therapeutic. A way to get out some of my pent-up rage. Rage rooted in anger, cultivated through years of abuse, now inflamed by a stressful new job as a stockbroker watching the price of stocks and bonds rise and fall, for reasons I didn’t fully appreciate at the time. With the added stress of starting the week of the 1987 crash—Black Monday—a twenty-five percent collapse in a blink of an eye. We were fortunate to have only two stories in our plush offices in downtown Westport. Any brokers jumping from the second would have landed in shrubs and been much more embarrassed than deceased.
Anyway, no permanent damage was done to my scene partner. Perhaps some short-term PTSD, and a little black and blue around the neck. But he could pass that off as a hickey and save face. He’ll certainly be the wiser for it. We learn from our mistakes. My experience has always been that true and lasting wisdom comes from the school of hard knocks. His lesson could very well have been much harder. I think he realizes that now...
Then there were the sucker-punches. Unlike suckerslaps, they often do lasting damage. And I suffered a few of them. Like the time a youngish mafioso-looking gentleman at a mafioso-owned club in the city sucker-punched me—cold-cocked-dead-center in my left temple—simply because I was trying to pick up his girlfriend.
In my defense, how was I to know the girl with exceptionally tall hair would be attracted to someone with such intense anger issues who, regrettably, was standing just behind me? A wannabe mafioso wearing a large cross on a thick necklace draped around his fat neck that looked like it had been spray-painted gold. He was the high-gloss kind you'd find at Ace Hardware that adheres to metal and won’t rust, even with the saltwater that young mafioso types always seem to be dripping from their fat necks firmly anchoring their tiny heads.
Those youngish mafioso types in the nineties were nothing like the older mafioso types I hung around in Brooklyn back when I was a kid. I had no interest in fighting a mafioso with two more of his type behind him, especially since there’d been a fatal shooting at this particular club just a week earlier.
My friend Alex, who drove us there, was a loaded weapon on the roads after a long night of drinking. I don’t remember getting into his brand new shiny black VW
Scirocco for the ride back to Connecticut that night, and I certainly don’t remember putting on a seatbelt. I never wore a seatbelt back then. We made the one-hour drive back in one piece. Unfortunately, about 100 yards from his house, while we were both getting some much-needed shuteye, we drifted across the oncoming lane and into the woods, hitting a tree head-on at about 45 miles an hour—no brakes. That seatbelt saved my life. I know I had an angel on my right shoulder when I got into that car in New York. I also know that same angel wasn’t on my right shoulder to cushion the blow of that sucker-punch I’d caught a half hour before getting into the car in the first place.
Angels aren’t stupid.
The tree was directly across the street from Alex’s house. I saw the lights inside turn on and his father, a Greek ship captain about five feet tall and five feet wide, with a surly disposition, come down to greet us. I knew he wasn’t going to be relieved to see we made it back home alive that night. As for me, I thought it’d be a good idea to pick up the bumper that blew off the back of his car from impact, carry it across the street, and toss it under a large Norwegian Spruce. I have no idea why I thought that would help. At the time, it seemed like it would.
I wished Alex well and headed home. It was a 200 yard walk just on the other side of a stream we’d spent countless hours shooting water-bugs on with our thick wooden slingshots years earlier. Just before turning the corner and sneaking as quietly as I could through the back door of my house, I turned and looked back. Two dark silhouettes were in the foreground—Alex’s mangled car, lights still on in the background, wrapped around that tree with radiator fluid steaming out of what was left of the front of the car. That steam really stole the show. No one heard from Alex for over a month.
Then there was the time I took a knee full force to the left side of my head when, during my college days—and I’m a bit foggy on this for obvious reasons—I believe that my left ear actually made full contact with my right jaw. My best friend and fraternity brother, “Rocket Bob,” a surfer dude who didn’t fit in at an Ivy League institution any more than I did, didn’t make the greatest effort to hold on to a small townie who became like a ballistic missile that achieved maximum velocity just before his knee slammed into the side of my head as I was being held down by two more townies. It was in just that moment that I came to realize that the townies in Ithaca didn’t appreciate Ivy-Leaguers as much as we thought they should.
Once again, a woman was involved, and needless to say, from the violent events that unfolded, her boyfriend had anger issues, too.
Or the time my father sucker-punched me from behind for, trust me, no good reason. That one landed dead straight into right temple—bullseye.
My brother and sister and I would see my father two weeks a year at Christmas during my late teens. It’d break my mother's heart seeing us off at the airport during the holiday season, almost as much as it’d break her heart when we got back. We’d fly to Europe for free on what they used to call a “chartered airline,” whatever that meant back then. It was one that advertised in my father's magazine at a discount–TV America. That was a TV Guide of sorts for the U.S. Military in Europe and the Pacific. These airlines never had a name or logo that inspired confidence. They were always something like “Pterodactyl Airlines” with a large red logo on the tail that looked more like an Ostrich in distress.
We’d spend a couple of weeks skiing in Austria where the “friendly” Germans lived. A reasonable drive from Frankfurt, Germany, where he lived—home to a real warm crowd. Unlike the others, this sucker-punch was years in the making. Even still, it was a surprise to me, as sucker-punches are, by definition, a surprise.
We were in a little restaurant along a trail, two miles down from the top of the mountain, with another two miles to go. My father grabbed a large bowl of steaming hot goulash soup. I followed a couple of minutes later with a wurst, a chunk of bread, and a tall pile of real-deal mustard on my stark-white plate, sitting on an off-white plastic tray. It was the kind of wurst that makes a snapping sound every step of the way—a sound loud and strong. If there are enough people eating wursts at the same time and in the same room, it sounds just like quarter-inch nuggets of hail hitting a polished concrete floor.
I slid an empty tray someone had left to my right and went to work. In many eating establishments in Europe, it’s acceptable to dunk wurst, by hand, into mustard, and follow it up with a mouthful of real bread. I ate fast, before my blue fingers could suck all the heat out of my wurst. Somehow, moving that tray was a direct affront to my father. He was looking for an excuse to humiliate me. And why not? He was on vacation—why not enjoy himself? The larger the audience, the better. The more he screamed, the more people turned our way. The more we became a spectacle, the louder he screamed. I’d never been so publicly humiliated since the slapping incident at birth.
My grandmother always hated the unkempt beard my father wore. She said it made him look like a terrorist. I’m only half Armenian and have that WASP look to me. Relatives in Cornwall, England I’m told. I think the crowd thought a terrorist was screaming at one of their own. Maybe he was even a Turk. Germans didn’t like the Turks back then. Especially when they’re distracting them from ingesting tasteless food while trying to sell newspapers in their German restaurants. Still, I’m not sure after all of these years whether the Germans ever gave them citizenship. Gastarbeiters, they called them “Guest workers.” Gotta stay pure.
In a very low voice, I pleaded with my father to stop. His volume went up another notch. Some in the crowd debated whether to call the Polizei to have him hauled away and deported back to Turkey. Again, in a low voice I begged, “Please stop.” No chance now. He was having too much fun. Finally, I told him to “shut up.” And that’s when the dam burst.
“Don’t you ever talk that way to me” he screamed at the top of his precancerous lungs. There was a huge windup, and then the loudest slap in the face you’ve ever heard. As I leaned over, one inch from his terrorist face, I said, “I’ll see you back down in town.”
I bolted out of the chalet careful not to make eye contact with any in the stunned audience. Alone at last. It was the best afternoon of skiing I've ever had.
In his defense, it’s possible he was on edge. That morning he thought it was a good idea to take us to the "mountain of death" on a gondola that scraped the Earth’s exosphere a number of times along the way. It actually was the scene of a skier’s death a number of years back. Coincidentally, it was Ingeborg Ulbricht’s first true love.
Who is this Ingeborg? This was my father’s girlfriend. Like my father, she enjoyed giving me and my brother and sister a hard time. My father would never marry her. She resented that. She resented all of us for that. I can see how they were attracted to each other, being so similar in their interests and hobbies. She, too, liked to cause a scene. However, she’d take her scenes to the next level. Like the time they were having a huge fight while we drove around some Italian city, which all seem to have at least one roundabout from hell. Just as we were entering this one, she swung open the car door and took off. But she didn’t find some obscure dark alley to disappear into. She ran right through the traffic into the center of the roundabout. And we were all treated to great opera, something everyone in Italy appreciates. Arms flailing, screams you couldn’t hear over the traffic and horns. She looked so Italian.
Well, he returned to the car alone. I didn’t see any blood, but when he reached for the gear stick, we all noticed a deep set of teeth impressions on his right wrist. She had a slight overbite.
I brought Ingeborg up only because I received a hellacious slap from her just outside of the room I was about to be sucker-punched in. On this particular day, I’d been sucked into one of Ingeborg’s operas—I believe this one was Lucia di Lammermoor. She finally pushed me over the edge, so I called her a Nazi. Germans don’t appreciate being called Nazis, particularly when their father was a card-carrying member of the party. You could hear that slap all the way back at Auschwitz. It wasn’t a sucker slap. I saw that one coming. Maybe that one I deserved.
Fun Fact: When a lifetime of chain smoking finally caught up with my father and he was holed up in a mostly empty hospital room in Germany being carved up into tiny little pieces, Ingeborg instructed my half-sister Nicole, who I met once or twice, not to get too close or touch him because he was highly contagious (with cancer). Ingeborg could be very thoughtful. That was thirty years ago. I haven’t seen Nicole since. I’m sure she’s fine.
Anyway, back to the sucker-punch incident. Good to my word, I was sitting in the back seat right behind my father when he got in the car at the end of our day skiing. Just in case he had the balls to look in his rearview mirror. It was silent in that car and silent as we got out and made our way into the house. My father walked into the kitchen. I was close behind. He was standing, facing me, as I walked through the door looking all confident. “So, what are you going to do about it?” with a smirk on his face. I made a beeline towards him and then stood about a foot in front of him, my pointer finger less than an inch from his terrorist nose.
“Don’t you ever touch me again,” I said in a level, monotone pitch.
“Get your hand out of my face!” he screamed, with slight hysteria in his eyes, as he slapped my hand away. “Don’t you ever touch me again. That would be a very serious mistake,” I said very deliberately. Very firmly.
I turned and started walking towards the door. Before I got to the doorway, there was a large cracking sound as I felt my right ear sink a good quarter inch into my skull.
I think he was surprised I didn’t get knocked out, or at least knocked down. I think he was shocked when I turned back to face him, smiling ear to ear. This was like a get out of jail free pass for me. I’d soon be tossing him around like a rag doll in a small room with sharp objects. It’s funny how when you’re seeing red, you don’t feel those kinds of punches and how light things seem. He looked like he was trying to do a doggie-paddle as I finally launched him across the room.
The sound of the crash on the other side of that room was almost as wonderful as watching the flight. My work was done. Point made. I calmly turned around and walked towards the door. For some reason, my father thought it was a good idea to make a bull run at me from behind. Once again, this wasn’t a good idea. He should’ve had that guy from Rocky—Mickie, I think was name was—scream in that raspy voice, “Stay Down, Rock. Stay Down.” Then throw in the towel when Rocky starts to grab the rope to pull himself up. There were plenty of towels in that kitchen, but none were thrown.
I grabbed him by the waist, raised him parallel to the floor, and firmly placed him in it. I sat on his stomach with my arms on his shoulders, pinning him down. I didn’t try to knock him out. I knew what would happen to him if a nineteen-year-old who looked like he was on steroids, packing a lifetime of rage, inserted a fist into that wide-open face. His arms were free, and he began swinging furiously—landing punches on both sides of my head. I felt nothing. In fact, I found the moment humorous and pathetic at the same time. I felt sorry for him while he was clubbing away. Our little family dynamic was finally over and we both knew it. I didn’t hear from him much after that. I didn’t even get a random postcard he used to send once a year.
Anyway, these particular sucker-punches had a more profound and lasting effect on me than I realized at the time. Looking at these assaults dispassionately, which I have to say is big of me, it’s clear they’ve contributed to a strange and persistent pressure on the right side of my head I’m now noticing. The kind of pressure you might feel after falling directly on your right ear and hearing a ringing sound and nothing else. Complete silence except for one ringing tone. And not an altogether bad note. Just not something you want to hear in complete silence.
Sucker-punches—they’re always sucker-punches. I never sucker-punched anyone. I never considered it, not even in the most desperate of situations. They seem so unfair—sucker-punches. The words themselves have no respect for each other; that’s pretty obvious. These types of punches go against the laws of dignity and honor that I have to believe are recorded with clear and concise language in a leather book bound somewhere. It’s the kind you can find on Amazon, made in China for free by Uyghurs when they're not in their re-education classes.
Of course, the first story was a sucker-slap—not a sucker-punch. But I like to tell that story because I think it makes me seem dangerous. Or at least it makes me seem like someone who courts danger, which I most certainly did and maybe still do a little. “Danger,” at least as I see it, holds in perfect balance elements of bravery, recklessness, anger, confidence, and purpose. All together and tight. I trusted that word, offering no apologies. That word— danger—always had my back.
I’ve always felt connected to that word, or at least wanted to be connected to that word. It was an image of myself that I could respect. It was an image I was well-equipped to project and, quite frankly, back up. Put simply, I liked the word because I felt it gave me that edge that I needed to—and I don’t want to sound overdramatic—survive. For those around me, I sensed it instilled part admiration and part fear. And I didn’t have a problem with that.